World News

Saudi Arabia to Seek Death Penalty for 5 Accused in Khashoggi Killing

Posted November 15, 2018 9:21 a.m. EST
Updated November 15, 2018 9:25 a.m. EST

BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor said on Thursday that he was requesting the death penalty for five people suspected of involvement in the killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi at the country’s consulate in Istanbul.

Speaking to reporters in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, a spokesman for the public prosecutor said that the 15-man team sent to confront Khashoggi had orders to return him to the kingdom, but after he resisted they decided on the spot to kill and dismember him.

The Saudi prosecutor’s account on Thursday appeared to contradict previous statements from both the Saudi government and senior White House officials about Saudi conclusions regarding the killing on Oct. 2 of Khashoggi.

The assassination of Khashoggi, a Virginia resident who wrote columns for The Washington Post that were critical of some Saudi policies, has caused widespread international outrage and the largest foreign relations crisis for the kingdom since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The statement from the Saudis on Thursday also sought to reinforce previous claims that the team in Istanbul had acted without the consent of the kingdom’s top leadership, meaning King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Before Thursday, the Saudis, whose versions of events has shifted, had most recently acknowledged evidence from Turkey that Khashoggi was killed in a deliberate, premeditated assassination.

The admission on Thursday that the killers had dismembered Khashoggi’s body to dispose of the remains appeared consistent with that version of events. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in interviews, had credited Saudi Arabia with acknowledging the premeditated character of the killing as part of the Saudi investigation.

But the Saudi account on Thursday appeared to double back to previous explanations that the operation had originally intended only to question or capture Khashoggi.

While acknowledging that the killers had quickly cut up the body, the Saudi prosecutor sought to portray the dismemberment as a spur-of-the-moment decision after an unintended killing. President Donald Trump had previously dismissed that explanation as “the worst cover-up ever.”

The new Saudi account offered on Thursday — of an accidental or improvised killing — also contradicted recent descriptions from American officials about audio recordings of the killing that the Turks had shared with the CIA director, Gina Haspel, during her visit last month to Ankara.

According to three people familiar with the recordings, one of the Saudi assailants, Maher Mutreb, can be heard instructing a superior in Arabic over the phone to “tell your boss” that the mission was accomplished.

U.S. intelligence officials believe the “boss” referred to by Mutreb is almost certainly Prince Mohammed, the people familiar with the recording said.

Mutreb was previously listed as a diplomat in the Saudi Embassy in London and he has often traveled with Prince Mohammed in what appears to be an intelligence or security role. Mutreb’s connections with the crown prince are another link between him and the operation.

But the people familiar with the recording said that Prince Mohammed’s name is not heard, so the belief that he was the “boss” was a matter of deduction. It is also possible that Mutreb may have believed incorrectly that Prince Mohammed ordered the killing.

Saudi officials disputed that account of the audio recording. The officials said Turkey had provided a transcript of a recording and allowed Saudi intelligence services to listen to it, and the officials said that the recordings heard by Saudi intelligence did not contain the phrase “tell your boss.”

It is possible that the Turks may have shared their evidence selectively with other intelligence services, including the Saudis and Americans.

Several current and former officials from Turkey, the United States and elsewhere have said that such a complex and risky operation could not have been conducted without the knowledge of the crown prince, although no evidence linking him directly to the crime has been made public.

Turkish officials have said that Khashoggi was killed in a premeditated assassination carried out by the Saudi team, whose members flew to Turkey to do the job.

The team, the Turks say, strangled Khashoggi soon after he entered the consulate, where he was hoping to obtain documents he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée, and then dismembered him.

Turkey has also released names, photographs and videos of the team in Istanbul, including images of a man who was wearing Khashoggi’s clothes after the killing and was tracked walking around Istanbul in an effort to leave a fake surveillance trail.

The Saudi spokesman said he could not identify any of the suspects because the investigation is ongoing.

Khashoggi’s body has not been found. Turkish officials have speculated that the Saudi agents dissolved it in acid; on Thursday, the Saudi spokesman repeated his government’s claim it had been given to a Turkish collaborator who then disposed of it.

Saudi Arabia’s story of what happened to Khashoggi changed repeatedly after his disappearance was first reported, with top officials insisting at first that he had left the consulate safely and acknowledging only weeks later that he had been killed inside the Saudi diplomatic building.